Industry Heroes: Edward Bernays – ‘the context of his work cannot detract from his mastery of human motivation’

Edward Bernays may have used his pioneering techniques of public relations to serve ends that are frowned on today - like promoting smoking - but that should not diminish his legacy argues Speedoc founder Serene Cai

Spin, the culture of persuasion, and its role in modern-day brand-building. It’s quite something. The first time I heard of Edward Bernays, I was in spin class.

No, I wasn’t sweating it out in some hip studio with trendy lighting and a hyped-up, too-fit-to-be-true instructor yelling out motivational speeches. I had just turned 20 and landed in Seattle for an exchange programme on the beautiful campus of the University of Washington.

All of a sudden, I was hearing about American political spin for the first time. I mean, of course, this was pre-Donald Trump, so the rules of spin hadn’t totally gone out the window yet. While it can have negative connotations to it (read: Hate Spin by Cherian George, another one of my academic idols), the techniques are generally sound when you consider it from a brand-building perspective.

In fact, what used to be considered techniques of spin are now very often widely-adopted basics of public persuasion. For example, then United States President John F. Kennedy is said to have nailed the 1960 presidential debates because of his willingness to put on makeup and look straight at the camera while speaking. These techniques are now pretty much par for the course.

Edward Bernays’ greatest campaigns revolved around this culture of public persuasion. His work with Lucky Strike, in particular, is generally considered to be the first public relations campaign in the world. He used a wide range of techniques to move the entire industry in the direction he wanted.

Tasked by Lucky Strike to increase smoking rates in women, he linked lighting up cigarettes with women’s emancipation – which was red-hot in the wake of World War One. At a time when women were still facing significant difficulty casting votes, Bernays portrayed smoking as a victory against social barriers that women faced.

When research showed that women found the green packaging to be unfashionable (which the company declined to change), he turned the tide of public opinion by persuading fashion designers such as Bergdorf Goodman to utilise more green in their designs. He also held lunches and gala dinners celebrating the colour.

He built an atmosphere of glamour and desirability by leaning on debutantes as influencers in an era when independent women were generally linked with being prostitutes. His efforts created huge seismic shifts in the tobacco industry. It is somewhat unfortunate that these examples revolve around tobacco, considering what we now know about smoking’s effects on health.

Still, the context within which Bernays worked cannot detract from his mastery of human motivation and his subsequent creation of the entire field of PR. It is his brand-building techniques that have endured and evolved into the industry as we know it today.

Nearly 100 years have passed since Bernays first worked with Lucky Strike. The face of PR has changed. Modern-day brand-building involves words like ‘consumer decision journeys’ and ‘micro-moments’, concepts Bernays never knew.

The heart of PR remains though. I think that’s the most important thing to remember. That at the crux of brand- building, no matter how complex it gets, is a desire to understand human motivation and use it to create trust. Just as it was 100 years prior and as it will be 100 years down the road. I find it oddly fitting that despite the historical significance of his work, many of us have never heard of Bernays’ name, at least not the way all of us recognise Ogilvy or Bernbach.

Yet, true to his legacy as ‘the father of PR’ – perhaps the greatest tribute of all to him is not that his name adorns walls in gilded halls. But instead that in every brand building campaign we create, we build upon the foundations he created.Serene Cai is co-founder and director of marketing and communications at the Singapore-based start-up Speedoc


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